Melvin Kealoha Bell of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) played a major lifesaving role when it came to maritime traffic during one of the darkest chapters in American history. Bell was born in 1920 in the town of Hilo on the island of Hawaii (popularly known as the “Big Island”), part of what was then the U.S. territory of Hawaii. In keeping with a widely practiced Hawaiian custom, his parents John Kauwanui Holokahi and Annie Kahahana placed him with his maternal grandfather John Bell to be raised through middle school. Even though Melvin eventually went back home to live with his parents, he kept the surname Bell for the remainder of his life.
Along with working as chief wireman for the Hawaiian Telephone Company, Bell’s father ran a small radio repair shop in the garage at their home. Bell, who had strong technical aptitude and an insatiable curiosity, helped out his father in that repair shop on a regular basis and in the process quickly learned the intricacies of how various electrical and mechanical things functioned. Bell enjoyed this type of work so much that, to his mother’s dismay, he would also routinely take apart toasters and vacuum cleaners in their home and then reassemble them.
After graduating from Hilo High School in 1938, Bell moved to Honolulu on Hawaii’s island of Oahu. It was there that he met several USGC servicemen whose seafaring stories inspired him to join that military branch. Bell’s initial USCG service involved being assigned to the cutter USCGC Taney as a mess attendant. In 1939, however, Bell’s military career took a dramatically new direction when he sought to become a radioman in the USCG. Bell impressed everyone with his in-depth knowledge of radio technology when he readily repaired a broken high-frequency transmitter that nobody else had been able to fix.
By 1940, Bell was serving as a radioman on the cutter USCGC Reliance. His additional responsibilities on board that vessel included monitoring patrols of a USCG seaplane that was based at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor (adjacent to Honolulu). By 1941, Bell had been reassigned to the USCG’s district communications station at the Diamond Head Lighthouse. (This facility is located on a volcanic cone in Honolulu.)
Bell was on duty at the Diamond Head Lighthouse when the Japanese Imperial Navy launched its surprise aerial assault on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Not long after that strike began, Bell transmitted the first radio messages warning commercial vessels in the region of Japan’s deadly attack. He also transmitted similar alerts to other U.S. military installations throughout the area.
Following this attack on his homeland, Bell used his considerable reservoir of skills and determination to help the United States defeat Japan during World War II. He specialized in communications intelligence with the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Radio Unit Pacific. In this capacity, he helped save many more lives by helping to break the secret Japanese Imperial Navy code and thereby allow the United States to decisively win one battle after another in the Pacific Theater. It was also during the war that the highly decorated Bell achieved the distinction of becoming the first Pacific Islander to be promoted to chief petty officer in the U.S. military.
After the war, Bell served as an instructor at the USC’s Electronics Technician School in Groton, Connecticut. In 1959, he retired from active duty and returned to Hawaii as a civilian employee of the USCG. Bell eventually worked for several years as a quality engineer with the U.S. Department of the Navy. He retired once and for all in 2004, receiving official recognition from President George W. Bush for having one of the longest federal government careers in American history. Bell died in 2018 at the age of 98.
For more information on Melvin Kealoha Bell, please check out https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/2018/09/tlbl-etcm-melvin-bell/.
Additional information on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who served with distinction in the U.S. Coast Guard is available at https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/2017/05/the-long-blue-line-coast-guards-asian-american-pacific-islander-history/.